Life on The Black List
Franklin Leonard’s Foray into Entrepreneurship in Media and Entertainment
The King’s Speech. Slumdog Millionaire. There Will Be Blood. Juno. It is hard to imagine that these films may never have been produced—that they could have been lost at the bottom of the deluge of screenplays that are written by Hollywood writers every year. In fact, that could have very well been the case, if not for Franklin Leonard, Founder and CEO of The Black List, and VP of Creative Affairs at Overbrook Entertainment.
The Black List is an annual list compiled by Leonard’s firm of Hollywood’s most-liked unproduced screenplays, as voted on by over 300 studio executives, major financiers, and production companies. Starting out as simply a way for Leonard to share information about scripts with other studio executives, The Black List has evolved into a key determinant of the future viability of a screenplay. As described by Leonard during an interview with The Harbus, being on the list “makes [a script] a lot easier to sell…. Everyone knows they’re in demand.”
The results of The Black List speak for themselves. Of the 500 scripts which have been included on The Black List, 125 movies have been made. These movies have collectively grossed over $10 billion in worldwide box office sales, and have won twenty Academy Awards from over 80 nominations.
Path to The Black List
“Growing up as a black nerd in the deep south while Steve Urkel was on television did not make for the best social life. I was lucky enough to have gotten into Harvard [University].”
Shortly after Harvard, Leonard began his short career as a McKinsey consultant. Though he enjoyed learning a tremendous amount from the brilliant, engaging people who worked there, he wanted something more. Leonard explained, “I just personally didn’t find it as fulfilling as I was hoping to find my career. There was an element of creativity and creating—as opposed to advising—that I found lacking. I wanted to be working with more creative people for whom creativity was part of their daily life and work, and I wanted to be involved in making something new rather than editing something that already exists.”
After much of his McKinsey class was laid off in 2002, Leonard went back to basics to discover his true passion—movies. As described by Leonard, “In February 2002, I was watching three films, Dr. Strangelove, Amadeus, and Being There, and at the very end of Being There, I walked into my bedroom and punched a ticket, a roundtrip ticket out to [Los Angeles].” After exploring the job market in LA for a few days, Leonard quickly received a job offer.
Leonard describes the genesis of The Black List as one fostered by necessity. As a junior film executive, a significant part of his job was to act as a primary filter for scripts. After being frustrated by months of no good material, he went back to his consulting roots to find a solution. The simple answer—“emailing the people I knew who were in a similar situation…and asking them to send me their ten favorite scripts from that year.” Franklin then just compiled the list and sent it back out.
The Impact of The Black List
Initially Leonard was just emailing 75 friends. Since then, the audience for The Black has grown considerably. After being featured in the list, writers who were begging to get meetings with executives were all of a sudden high in demand.
As The Black List expands, Leonard continues to focus on maintaining the quality that the brand entails, a challenge which grows with the number of contributors whose opinion is factored into the final rankings. However, the fear of brand dilution is mitigated by the community-driven nature of the project itself. Leonard describes, “I think everyone recognizes that if we don’t behave with integrity, the thing ceases to have value….. [The contributors] all recognize the value of having this thing in existence. It’s very easy to control that reality.”
What’s Next for Leonard and The Black List
As Vice President of Creative Affairs at Overbrook, Leonard assists in the identifying, making, and selling of feature films, no matter in what capacity. Making movies remains his passion, but The Black List, which started out as a “happy accident” is becoming a new business. Although his priority from 9am to 9pm is making movies, The Black List takes up his remaining waking hours – 9pm to 3am.
As the product evolves, so does Leonard’s thinking, as he transitions from doing everything himself to managing an organization. “The move from that to an ongoing institution that [has] to build momentum and get adoption and be launched into the world, it’s an entirely different psychology, and one that I’m still learning to feel comfortable with.”
As the process unfolds, Leonard continues to appreciate the opportunities that his success has provided. To Leonard, his jobs allow him to achieve the creativity and balance which he was striving for. “In a strange way, half of my job is doing the strategic, rigorous, organizational thinking I did at McKinsey, the other half is sitting in a room with incredibly talented people making stuff, for lack of a better term.” To Leonard, the most important thing is still doing what makes him excited for work each day. “It’s amazing how much happier you are making less money but excited to go to work than you are with a lot of money and hate your job.”
As The Black List grows, Leonard is exploring ways to monetize the product. Described Leonard, “We’re in the process of productizing many of the things that The Black List provides. And in doing so, charging for the product is not unreasonable.”
In terms of future expansion, Leonard envisions a scenario where everyday consumers are also involved in the Black List. For now, however, the film industry is a big enough market.
Passing on Advice
To the MBA wanting to enter the film industry, Leonard has these words of advice–“To some extent you are interfacing with the artist whose work you’re selling, but by and large that’s not the priority. In terms of working with any product that’s also considered art or that is related to cultural production, having an inordinate amount of respect and knowledge about that thing, whether it be publishing or film or even internet storytelling, can be helpful, particularly when you are interfacing with creatives…. I don’t know if I have any genius insight into what’s going to work and what’s not because I think we’re all still trying to figure it out.”